Over recent years emerging economies have recognised the importance of higher education. China began investing seriously in its universities in the mid-1990s, and its position in current league tables demonstrates that its efforts are paying off
In comparison the Russian government was late to the game, only last year announcing concrete reforms to improve higher education.
As the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Rankings illustrate, Russia has a long way to go to reach competitive standards that are crucial for attracting international students.
League tables measure ‘quality’, however, and as such, measure standards according to a restricted set of criteria.
Exciting developments underway in Russia and elsewhere are therefore overlooked.
Arguably, then, although Russia has a long way to go, it is on the right path. If it is now to compete for international recognition, it must be patient, ramp up current efforts and ‘play the game’.
Mismanagement during the post-Soviet period resulted in Russian higher education becoming overstretched (the student body doubled in size) and under-resourced.
A failure to embrace international students, corporate investment and English as the academic lingua franca, have resulted in Russian universities suffering year after year in international league tables.
Only in 2012 did the Russian government pledge to resolve this issue, pledging to ensure that five Russian universities are ranked in the top 100 in the world by 2020.
This is an ambitious target, and one that has led to a series of exciting developments which, if developed further, will help Russia to compete with its BRICS counterparts.
Significant government-led projects are underway, with academia and industry being encouraged to generate more sustainable partnerships that produce scholars who are better equipped and more attractive to the marketplace.
Novosibirsk University (NSU) in Eastern Siberia is just one example where business, government and academia are working together to create a world-class natural science research institute. Through investment NSU is increasing international access to its courses, developing its international presence, commercialising research, attracting higher-quality and more international staff, increasing the number of articles in international journals, increasing R&D spending, collaborating in international mega-projects, and so on.
These developments, mainly brought about through government funding, are not only turning NSU into a leading research institute but should also push the university up global rankings.
Similar projects are underway throughout Russia, but if the Russian government is serious about its 2020 pledges, it needs to bring practices up-to-date across the board.
The answer is not more state funding, but attracting further international investment by treating higher education as a business, and academia as a training ground for the next generation that will join the workforce.
During the post-Soviet period the purpose of a university education, to produce graduates for the market, was lost. Courses therefore need to be restructured so they are more responsive to the needs of industry and they need to focus more on competencies gained rather than time spent studying.
The Russian higher education system also needs to be streamlined, with a number of universities turned into training colleges, and those institutions with greater potential encouraged to form business partnerships to provide funding, to further encourage the enrolment of international students, and to make work placements an integral part of a degree.
A university that offers a world-class education and high-tech research facilities will attract international students who are seeking universities where they can gain experience in a dynamic market.
Ranking position is essential for attracting these students. Rankings are also important for generating further competition.
The hope, therefore, is that these league tables will generate further impetus for Russia’s academic institutions to develop stronger and more sustainable business partnerships, so that Russian institutions can claim their rightful position in the top division of global league tables.
Andrey Yakunin is Co-founding Partner of VIY Management.
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